Km cycled: 730
Km to home: 24, 270 (approx)
Two weeks ago, bikes laden with clothes, books, camping equipment, food and an axe, Al and I left Magadan, heading into a vast unknown of Far East Siberian mountains and swamps. The only road which connects Magadan with the rest of the world was originally an access route for prisoners into the mineral rich Gulag mines, though less than fifty years later Russians themselves seem unwilling to talk about the past horrors. I must admit that I find the apparent lack of moral outrage rather strange – and in a way, shocking.
As we rode north, the quality of the road changed – from tarmac, to dirt, to mud, to snow, to ice. We weaved through valleys and over passes, the “ever green” trees on either side soon giving up the fight against cold, their needles shed by the last week of September. Many of the old roadside settlements have also given in: whole towns are now empty, dilapidated and ghostly, abandoned as the communist machine withdrew its massive false economy of subsidies. Cycling on ice has resulted in a rather steep learning curve in crash techniques. It has become a regular experience of mine to be cycling merrily down a nice, flat and inoffensive stretch of road, only to abruptly find my backwheel slipping out from underneath me, with the force of a ferocious rugby tackle, leaving me sprawling, bumping and sliding on my side further down the road. After lots of bruises and plenty of laughter, my ice riding technique is steadily improving.
As well as interesting cycling, we have made some great campsites – on the edge of forests, up passes, in old quarries, next to streams. The “great
2004 Siberian swimming competition” currently stands at: Lilwall 2 – Humphreys 2, though I must admit that Al took the first dip which was
(literally) icebreaking! Al, having spent over 3 years now on a bicycle (see www.roundtheworldbybike.com), is impeccably (and smugly) efficient with his camping and packing skills. As he settles down after breakfast to munch his way through another chapter of Solzhenitsyn, I usually find myself still trying to find my toothbrush, or wedge another tin of meat in my already bursting panniers. Fortunately for me though, Al is patient and dependable, as well as a capable adventurer, and his skills as a joker, optimist, observer of life and charmer of locals are second to none.
The Russians, whilst continuing to emphasise the apparent lunacy of our proposed route at this time of year, are in practice very hospitable. The saying “the Russians love a man who suffers” is proving true. We have been handed considerable quantities of food, drink, and cash by complete strangers on numerous occasions, and the other day, to our surprise, we were given a slap up meal by a committee of bank clerk ladies, in response to our asking where the nearest pay phone was.
However, it is sad to say that the Russians reputation for heavy drinking is also well earned – even at 8am we have encountered Russian men meeting out vodka and punches to one another as they wait for the bus to work.
After 10 days of steady riding up the trassa (highway), we finally arrived at the turnoff to Jakutsk – what I had labelled in my own mind as “the turnoff of doom”. Along here, we were repeatedly told, we would be on our own – no trucks, no cars, no buses – and besides TamTor (a village-weather station also known as “the pole of cold” due to its world record breaking achievement a few decades back of achieving below -70 degrees Centigrade), no people. It seemed to me therefore, no small act of providence that it was at this point, less than 10 km before “the turnoff of doom” that Al’s back wheel decided to break irreparably. We were left with no choice but to leave the bikes in the nearest town, and beat a hasty retreat by bus back to Magadan, where we are now waiting optimistically for the new part to arrive courtesy of Fedex (will it arrive on time?). All being well, we will soon be rejoining our bikes and then face the race of our lives to cover 4000 km of wintery Siberia before our visas run out in 9 weeks time.
Fully packed and on our way
Exiting a snowy campsite
Wipeout on ice
Cycling in snow